I never took a photography course in college. My first reason was to make room for more painting courses. Painting courses mirror painting in general: long, meandering, and all-consuming. A couple years into my studies, I took up with the printmaking world, and I really liked how the sensibilities of printmaking informed my notion of making paintings. Thinking of my paintings at that time in my life as monoprints seemed to de-mystify painting in a positive way. Painters get intimidated by painting. It’s our white whale. Painters spend half their career figuring out tricks to make the act of painting seem manageable, and the other half pretending they don’t need a coping strategy for the studio. We’re like the yo-yo dieters of the art world.
My second reason for having never taken a photography course was that I wanted to keep one two-dimensional art practice a mystery to me. (In graduate school, I felt vindicated in this opinion when I asked the head of the photography department if she would serve on my graduate committee. Knowing I never took a photo class, she asked what business she, a photographer, would have on a painter’s committee. I said, “because I think photography is magical.” Her eyes widened and she whispered, “it is!” And a friendship was born.) There are a lot of painters that see photography as merely a tool for painting, and I’ve never liked that. I’ve softened my position a bit regarding using photography as source material, but I still firmly believe that if painters paid a little more attention to photographers, we’d have a lot more professional success.
First of all, photographers work faster and with more regularity. Some of that is inherent to the medium; taking a picture is quick, and taking and making multiples is far easier than oil painting. That speed and volume of making work can lend itself to creating a consistent studio work practice. I am in the studio every day working. Sometimes I’m painting, and sometimes I’m reading. Sometimes I draw, and sometimes I just look at my stuff. But whatever I do on any given day, being in the studio matters.
Last month I read Annie Leibovitz’s 2008 book At Work. In it she chronicles her career of working by looking back at some key moments and pictures, and charted a navigatable path through her thought processes. She just keeps working, knowing that she won’t get every shot, but she’ll get most of them if she just stays at it. There aren’t a lot of painting books that do that (although, Lisa Yuskavage’s Small Paintings comes close) because it takes longer for painters to see patterns of hits and misses that eventually create one’s career. Maybe that’s the magical part of painting, the length of time it takes to figure out what it is we’re making.